Posted tagged ‘War memoir’

Mary “M.L.” Doyle: Not the Same Old Same Old War Stories

November 27, 2016

the-peacekeepers-photographI’m very happy to have my interview with veteran-author Mary “M.L.” Doyle appear in the latest issue of 0-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal published by the Veterans Writing Project. Getting to know Doyle and her work has been both enjoyable and illuminating. As the headnote to the interview explains, the uniqueness of Doyle’s perspectives and the variety of her titles are impressive. Both her personal background and her writing ventures—an African-American former Army sergeant first class who writes military crime fiction and military-themed urban romance/fantasy while co-authoring memoirs of prominent minority women-in-uniform—intrigued me greatly upon learning about them. Our interview fulfilled expectations that her thoughts about it all would be as interesting as the works themselves.

For readers interested in exploring Doyle’s books, I suggest starting with her military crime novel debut The Peacekeeper’s Photograph (2013). Set in Bosnia on an Army FOB in the 1990s, The Peacekeeper’s Photograph is the first of three “Master Sergeant Harper” mysteries Doyle has now authored. It features many elements relatively untouched by most contemporary war lit: not just Bosnia, but a female senior NCO’s perspective, command group treachery, soldier romance, Army racial dynamics, and the threat of rape faced by military women if captured. Readers might also try The Bonding Spell (2015), about a female Iraq War veteran who channels the spirit of an ancient Sumerian goddess after picking up a magical relic while deployed. I also recommend I’m Still Standing: From Captive US Soldier to Free Citizen (2011), Specialist Shoshana Johnson’s memoir that Doyle co-wrote. Johnson, if you will remember, was the African-American junior enlisted cook who was captured by Iraqi insurgents along with Jessica Lynch in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Considering Johnson’s view of war alongside that of not Lynch’s, but, say, ex-SEAL Matt Bissonnette’s, as expressed in his memoir No Easy Day, which I also read recently, juxtaposes the diverse experiences of Americans who serve the nation in uniform–and all the advantages and rectitude do not necessarily accrue to sagas of white male combat-arms super-warriors. To be clear, I thought No Easy Day was fascinating and salute Bissonnette’s combat prowess, but I’m Still Standing, as does everything Doyle writes, demonstrates how the military is many people and many things.

The interview offers Doyle’s insights about all I’ve mentioned above and much else, to include her views on the rewards of independent publishing. Please read it and then seek out Doyle’s own remarkable body of work—really, start anywhere and you won’t go wrong.

*****

A final note: As the Mentor Program Coordinator for the Veterans Writing Project, I’ve matched up some 30 aspiring veteran-writers with experienced authors and teachers in online mentoring relationships. We now need more mentors, so if you have time, inclination, and ability, I’d love to hear from you.  The aspiring writers are wide-ranging in age and writing interests, but some basic splits are between male/female, Vietnam/Iraq-Afghanistan, and fiction/memoir/poetry/screenwriting, and I do my best to match veterans and mentors who will prove compatible. No military experience is required for mentors–just a capacity to teach and a desire to help. You can reach me at petermolin@msn.com.

Those Lazy, Hazy Days of War Writing Summer…

July 12, 2015

The Long Walk…aren’t so lazy and hazy if you live in the New York City area, where the artistic and intellectual processing of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan affords almost too many events to absorb. The highlight of the summer is the staging in Saratoga Springs (180 miles up the Hudson River from Manhattan) of an opera based on Brian Castner’s memoir The Long Walk. Castner probably didn’t see it coming, but in retrospect it’s not hard to recognize his memoir’s operatic potential. Castner’s record of his tours in Iraq as the head of an Air Force Explosives Ordnance Disposal detachment and his troubles readjusting to civilian life afterwards is fine in its particulars—in a perfect world it would be more popular than American Sniper. It’s got more harrowing combat scenes, for instance, as well as better descriptions of specialized military training and more honest, reflective, and generous portraits of how difficult redeployment can be. But what really elevates The Long Walk is Castner’s imagining of his life in terms of darker, larger, may I say mythic forces that imbue existence with cosmic significance. In particular, Castner describes what it means to be overcome by “The Crazy”—those oh-fuck moments after war when you realize just how screwed over combat and danger have made you, no matter how normal you appear or try to be. Castner’s richly-situated exploration of the larger-than-life forces that envelop him are I’m sure what inspired the opera producers Jeremy Beck and Stephanie Fleischmann.

The Long Walk Opera

More prosaic, but still exciting, war-lit readings are taking place within the city itself. Words After War impresarios Brandon Willitts and Matt Gallagher are sponsoring not one, but two series of readings. Monthly events at The Folly, a Greenwich Village bar partly owned by Gallagher, have featured local veteran and military-themed writers, such as Mariette Kalinowski, Kristin Rouse, and Jake Siegel, as well as civilian authors, reading unpublished and recently published work in an intimate setting. Words After War also co-sponsors a second set of readings, called Danger Close, in conjunction with New York University English professor Patrick Deer. Deer is part an academic consortium named the Cultures of War and Postwar Research Group and the author of Culture in Camouflage, a study of literature written in Britain during World War II, so it’s great that he has now turned his attention to contemporary American war writing while helping showcase its authors in intriguing pairings with compelling moderators. One Danger Close event featured Phil Zabriskie and Jesse Goolsby in conversation with Lea Carpenter, and a second had Myra Jacob hosting authorial collaborators Gavin Kovite and Christopher Robinson along with August Cole and P.W. Singer. And as if that weren’t enough, the energetic and innovative Willitts and Gallagher have announced a third event, a one-off called Writing War, to take place July 30 at the Brooklyn Historical Society and featuring Phil Klay, Matt Gallagher, Sara Novic, and Maurice Decaul.

Words After War is by far not the only game in New York town, either. War author and Restrepo filmmaker Sebastian Junger, for example, has been hosting readings featuring veteran authors and war journalists at HIS bar-restaurant the Half-King and elsewhere in the city. Earlier in the summer, Arts in the Armed Forces, a vet-friendly organization founded by actor and ex-Marine Adam Driver, helped promote an off-Broadway play by Daniel Talbott titled Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait. Alex Mallory, who has staged at least two plays about war in Iraq with her troupe Poetic Theater, is back July 27 with a staged reading of her work There Are No Camels in Beirut, about conflict in that strife-torn city in 2006. Invitations to events and announcement of new programs by writing collectives such as Voices From War and the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop arrive weekly if not daily. And in the most out-of-the-blue way possible, I’ve been consulted by the event-designers of Gigantic Mechanic, a Brooklyn arts initiative currently developing an interactive theater experience called Hearts and Minds, which will allow audience members to role-play members of an infantry squad on patrol in Iraq. That’s not quite as cool as having an opera made of your life, but I’m flattered to have been asked for input.

So that’s New York for you, creatively and endlessly engaged and productive. I hope things are as busy and interesting as you want them to be wherever you are this summer.

The American Sniper Situation: The Not-So-Secret Inclinations of Public Taste

July 5, 2015

American SniperI’ve been asked to contribute to an anthology of essays on American Sniper and have been working on my contribution the past few weeks. The project’s given me a chance to reread many of the reviews published upon the memoir’s and then the movie’s releases, and below I offer a list of some of the most pertinent ones. One subject of discussion has been whether Clint Eastwood’s movie version of American Sniper is faithful to Kyle’s memoir and if either the movie or the book fully and accurately relate the totality of Kyle’s life and service. Other reviews ask what is so “American” about Kyle and his brand of sniper-heroics. Still others question whether the movie glamorizes war generally or justifies specifically war in Iraq and glorifies the contributions of Navy SEALs to the American military effort. Some reviews take issue with the movie’s portrait of Iraqi civilians and combatants, while a final set discusses the memoir’s and film’s depiction of the potentially traumatic effects of combat and deployment.

Taken together, the memoir, the film, the reviews, and everything and everyone pertaining to their production and distribution, to include the thoughts of the real-life men and women portrayed, to include Kyle’s victims, constitute what Israeli photography critic Ariella Azoulay would call an interpretive “situation”: analysis of an artistically- and technologically-shaped representation of a real-world person or event that incorporates everything that has been said and could be said about both, in order to elicit the most detailed and just understanding of the moral, political, and aesthetic stakes involved. A tall order indeed–too tall for me here, but no doubt the American Sniper situation allows us to gain traction on at least two pertinent questions about the millennial wars:

What does it take for young Americans to kill in combat, what is it like to kill in combat, and what is it like to live afterwards?

What stories about war connect with audiences and why?

I’m writing my anthology contribution on the first question, so will hold my thoughts here, but am happy to take a swing at the question about American Sniper‘s astounding popularity. I think a lot of something Edgar Allan Poe wrote about Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1848. Speaking of Hawthorne’s short story collections in the years prior to writing The Scarlett Letter, Poe wrote, “But the simple truth is, that a writer who aims at impressing the people is always wrong when he fails in forcing that people to receive the impression. How far Mr. Hawthorne has addressed the people at all is, of course, not a question for me to decide. His books afford strong internal evidence of having been written to himself and his particular friends alone.”

That’s a fascinating statement. It suggests that if writers (and moviemakers) want to be popular, they have only themselves to blame if they aren’t. The subjects, themes, and styles that people like, Poe implies, are right there for the taking for he or she who will. I wonder how true that is? And if American Sniper‘s success means that contemporary war-story-tellers have finally hit the sweet spot of war-story popularity, I wonder what that bodes for war writing and war movie-making to come? As another critic of Poe’s time, Alexis de Tocqueville, put it when writing about American theater in Democracy in America (1835), “Authors soon discover the secret inclinations of public taste,” which suggests that the public’s inclinations don’t remain secret for very long. Chris Kyle’s co-authors were lawyer Scott McEwan and veteran writer of military thrillers Jim DeFelice, so we know he had experienced help shaping the material of his life so that it resonated with audiences. An even more telling statement comes from one of Kyle’s editors, Peter Hubbard, who is described in a New York Times article by Julie Bosman as saying that “he was determined to publish [American Sniper] for a general-interest reader, the kind of person who would pick up a big blockbuster thriller. ‘I didn’t want it to be characterized as a genre military book,’ he said. ‘It functions as a great action and adventure story.’” As is well-documted in many reviews below, Clint Eastwood and his screenwriter Jason Hall substantially altered Kyle’s memoir in ways that clearly tapped “the secret inclinations of public taste.” From an ethical-aesthetic perspective, the question is whether they did so according to their own sense of artistic integrity, cravenly, or both. You know what would be interesting? Another movie version of American Sniper, made by a filmmaker/screenwriter team with radically different ideas about Kyle and his memoir than had Eastwood and Hall. If that happened, we would definitely have a “situation” to consider.

****

An American Sniper Critical Compendium

Julie Bosman. “A Wave of Military Memoirs With You-Are-There Appeal.”  New York Times 18 March 2012.

Nicholas Schmidle. “In the Crosshairs.” The New Yorker 3 June 2013.

Brian Van Reet.  “A Problematic Genre: ‘The Kill Memoir.'” New York Times 16 July 2013.

David James. American Sniper and the Hero Myth.”  Wrath Bearing Tree 17 December 2014.

David Denby. “Living History: Selma and American Sniper.”  The New Yorker 22 December 2014.

Alex Horton. American Sniper Feeds America’s Hero Compex, and It Isn’t the Truth About War.” The Guardian 24 December 2014.

Michael Cummings and Erin Cummings. “The Surprising History of American Sniper‘s ‘Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs’ Speech.” Slate 21 January 2015.

Dana Stevens. “The Battle Over American Sniper.” Slate 21 January 2015.

“Confused About How You Are Supposed to Think About American Sniper? Here Are Twenty Thinkpieces That Can Help You Put Things in Perspective.” Clickhole 22 January 2015.

Brian Turner. “I Served in Iraq and American Sniper Gets It Right. But It’s Still Not the War Film We Need.” The Vulture 22 January 2015.

Adrian Bonenburger. “There Are No War Heroes: A Veteran’s Review of American Sniper.”  The Concourse 23 January 2015.

Colby Buzzell. Chris Kyle and the Iraq War Are More Complex than American Sniper–or Criticism of It.” The Guardian 23 January 2015.

Courtney Duckworth. “How Accurate is American Sniper?” Slate 23 January 2015.

Roy Scranton. “The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to Redeployment and American Sniper.” Los Angeles Review of Books 25 January 2015.

Cara Buckley. American Sniper Fuels a War on the Homefront.” New York Times 28 January 2015.

Susannah George. “Here’s What Moviegoers in Baghdad Think About American Sniper.” Global Post 28 January 2015.

Joe Davis. “A Former Marine’s Review of American Sniper.” Time 9 February 2015.

If you have suggestions for additions to this list, please let me know.

Colby Buzzell’s Thank You For Being Expendable

May 31, 2015

TYFBEMy review of Colby Buzzell’s latest essay and magazine article collection Thank You for Being Expendable is up at The Bridge, a website dedicated to “Policy, Strategy, National Security, and Military Affairs,” as their Medium site explains. The Bridge has actually run three reviews of Buzzell’s latest, so let me salute my co-reviewers, a US Army officer who goes by the nom-de-plume Angry Staff Officer and a US Air Force officer named Blair Shaefer, both of whom turn many nice phrases. The ASO, for example, writing of the senior junior enlisted faction of the military known as “E4s,” who tend to be the most reliable indicator of unit morale, writes, “if there actually was an E-4 Mafia, Colby Buzzell would be the godfather.” Shaefer describes Thank You For Being Expendable the “punk rock alternative to Service Academy and/or Ivy League-educated military officer GWOT memoirs.” Like!

I connected with The Bridge managing editor Nathan K. Finney through my involvement with the Military Writer’s Guild. MWG has been around for a while as an organization comprised (mostly) of serving and veteran writers of the serious policy and strategy analysis persuasion, but it has lately reinvigorated its recruiting efforts and extended its reach to a few of us on the artistic side of things. I’m glad to be part of MWG and eager to see where it goes. Publishing on Medium and using Slack to handle internal business has already made me feel a good twenty years younger, so things are off to an excellent start, as I see them.

Colby Buzzell, Thank You for Being Expendable, and Other Experiences. Byliner, 2015.

Minnesota Turn-and-Burn: War Writing at AWP15

April 18, 2015

A “turn-and-burn” military convoy travels from one base to another, executes its business quickly, and then immediately returns home; the mission doesn’t allow for socializing or enjoying the destination post’s amenities. In Afghanistan, turn-and-burns were bummers, because, after risking our lives on the roads to ambushes and IEDs, we felt like we deserved to relax a bit before doing so again. My trip to the 2015 Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, or AWP15, held last weekend in Minneapolis, was a bit of a turn-and-burn for me, unfortunately, for I arrived Friday morning and by mid-Saturday afternoon I was already heading back to the airport. I packed in a lot in my 30 hours in Minnesota, but I also missed a few panels and chances for fun before my arrival and after my departure.

Minnesota, first time ever to the home of so many of my musical heroes! Dylan, Prince, the Replacements, Husker Dü, and even now the great Hold Steady, and where T.S. Eliot once spoke to 17,000 people in a hockey arena….

Walking to AWP Saturday morning across the Mississippi River to downtown Minneapolis Convention Center

Walking to AWP across the Mississippi River to downtown Minneapolis on Saturday morning

Musical and poetical rhapsodies aside, I wasn’t the only war writer who arrived in town possessed by a sense of purpose. For some, the urgency was born of dissatisfaction with the way war writing was represented at last year’s AWP14 in Seattle (though hopefully not with my panel there). Flashes of War author Katey Schultz, for example, explained that she left AWP14 feeling that civilian voices on war had been neglected. Siobhan Fallon wrote that she was glad to see so many women featured on war lit panels. Taking matters in his own hands, Benjamin Busch recruited an all-star line-up of war authors—Schultz, Fallon, Brian Turner, and Phil Klay—for a panel titled “Telling Our New War Stories: Witness and Imagination across Literary Genres.” Determined not to waste a second, Busch dispensed with author readings and and allowed for only a truncated audience Q&A. Instead, Busch himself interviewed the panelists, asking damn good questions about war-writing craft and politics that elicited thoughtful, thorough responses. For my part, knowing that I wouldn’t be on the ground long, I invited every war writer and scene-supporter I knew to dinner Friday night. It was a somewhat desperate ploy for company, but one that saved me from my usual conference fate—eating alone at McDonalds–so thank you everyone who came.

Name all the war writers and scene supporters in this picture and win a free prize!

War writers, friends, and scene supporters at AWP15

My speaking role at AWP15 was moderating a panel titled “Who Can’t Handle the Truth? Memoirs by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans,” featuring Ron Capps, Kayla Williams, and Colin Halloran. I contributed ten minutes of editorial overview, all which proved totally superfluous given the power of the readings and commentary that followed. Capps, Williams, and Halloran are each fully at home behind the podium, and any one of them could have commanded the audience’s attention for an hour. Their readings recounted harrowing moments during deployment and afterwards; war, military service, and life afterwards have not been easy for Capps, Williams, and Halloran, and their memoirs unflinchingly portray events that made it so and the pain and turmoil that ensued. As I listened, the sense that I got from their books that they had been pretty damn good (conscientious, competent, and energetic) soldiers in uniform was reinforced, and I wondered about the difference between the squared-away soldierly performances and the unraveling of the personal lives—as if a mil-civ divide within had chewed them up and made their lives a tumult. Capps, Williams, and Halloran used the “T-word”—trauma—directly, but sparingly, as if mindful that the word has become an 800-pound IED in rooms where veterans and veterans writing are discussed. Speaking of PTSD, for example, Capps said, “You can control it, but you can’t hope to cure it.” Their readings made clear, however, that their service had been traumatic and that writing about it played a therapeutic, or at least an important part, in their restoration to healthy and productive happiness. The mesmerized audience had plenty of questions, so I didn’t ask the one I prepared:

“18th-century English author Samuel Johnson wrote that ‘no one ever regrets serving as a soldier or sailor.’ In your mind is that statement wisdom or foolishness, either generally or personally? To the extent that you might regret serving, was it war or military culture that did the most damage? To the extent that you do not, what got you through the hardest part—writing, medication, therapy, love, friends, time, or something else?”

Ron Capps, Kayla Williams, Colin Halloran, me.

Ron Capps, Kayla Williams, Colin Halloran, me.

Another panel, titled “Writing as Therapy for War: Developing Stories and Poems with Witnesses and Soldiers,” unabashedly promoted the use of writing as rehabilitative for individuals brutalized by war, as a means of documenting injustice, and as a means of expressing outrage to powers-that-be. Poet, playwright, and essayist Maurice Decaul, head of a New York University veterans writer collective, said that for the collective’s members “writing was not meant to be therapeutic, but it often was.” The new director of Military Experience and the Arts website, David Ervin, an Iraq veteran, spoke openly about how his road to recovery from being “pretty messed up” owed much to writing. Olivia Cerrone, part of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, described how writing gave voice to Afghan women repressed by their own culture and damaged by war, while Elena Bell said much the same on behalf of Palestinian women in Israel.

Ben Busch’s questions for his all-killer, no-filler line-up of authors focused on large issues of political implication and writerly issues of craft. Brian Turner spoke of “complicity”—his effort to imbricate civilian reading audiences in the circle of responsibility for the damage done by war. Siobhan Fallon explained that part of her motivation in writing You Know When the Men Are Gone was her sense that the American public knew little about the war experience that soldiers and their families were enduring. Phil Klay said that he began to write after returning from Iraq and asking himself, “What the hell was that all about?” Katey Schultz reported that she began to write about war when she noticed how language had begun to grow distorted and then change in the years after 9/11. “A story begins with an unanswered question, and I had a lot,” she said. Turning to issues of craft, she said, “It took me a year to get the uniforms and equipment right and another year to figure out who called who ‘sir’ and then six more months to make the characters come alive.” On a roll, Schultz explained that there are many ways to write authentically about war besides personal witness and first-hand experience. Empathy and research are great teachers, too, she said, and spoke of how Google and YouTube aided her while writing Flashes of War. All the panelists had great anecdotes about the importance of research in bringing not just realistic detail but life to their stories. Turner spoke of reading late at night about a butterfly unique to Bougainville that then became a detail in a passage in My Life as a Foreign Country about his grandfather who fought there. Fallon described asking her husband to send her examples of soldier port-a-john graffiti, which he did, but that she eventually had to make up her own to create the perfect effect in a story. Klay described trying to attain a “thick knowledge” (anthropologist Clifford Geertz reference!) that allowed him to be comfortable “making things up and knowing it’s not bullshit.” Exactly what model of PVS-4 Night Vision Goggles did the Marines use in 2004 anyway? It matters, said Klay, along with a lot of other things that matter. But each knew the limits of journalistic-like quest for verisimilitude, too. Busch quoted Ron Capps to the effect that, “We can all get the facts. It’s what you do with them afterwards.”

On the subject of trauma, though, the authors’ remarks minimized the references that were everywhere in the “Writing as Therapy for War” panel, and they turned to the topic directly only as the panel came to a close. Klay, for example, asserted that war writers should be on guard to avoid “flattening the story into trauma,” an idea echoed by Busch, who asked if we might be encouraging veterans to repeatedly tell a certain kind of story when they speak or write of war. Writing, or life, the sentiment seemed to be, need not be defined by all-abiding concern with suffering focalized through the experience of individual soldiers or non-combatants. I’m sure the panelists are sympathetic to the “Writing as Therapy for War” panelists’ goals–they would probably say they are working for the same thing–and it’s also obvious that the characters in their own stories, poems, and memoirs have been severely rattled by war. But rather than relying on trauma tropes, the authors expressed interest in thinking expansively about what war writing can do and be; even in time of war military service is not only about pain and outrage–and if it is, the subjects can be approached from a variety of directions and perspectives. “Widen the palette,” Turner urged war writers, “use more of the imagination.”

Brian Turner, Katey Schultz, Siohban Fallon, Benjamin Busch, Phil Klay

Brian Turner, Katey Schultz, Siohban Fallon, Benjamin Busch, Phil Klay

So, turning and burning, war writing unfolds upon itself, revealing new problems and possibilities, proceeding in different registers, with varying points-of-view, goals, and subjects of emphasis. A view of things clear-cut to one or many may be problematic or uninteresting to others. Interestingly, the non-war lit panels I attended wrestled with many of the same issues pestering the war writing community. Judging by the titles alone makes the case: “Blood Will Out: Putting Violence on the Page.” “The Politics of Empathy: Writing Through Borrowed Eyes.” “Writing Atrocity: The Novel and Memoir of Political Witness.” How sensationally or how subtly should an author describe graphic violence? What are the problems associated with white men and women portraying dark-skinned characters? Has a war novel other than Sand Queen portrayed the indiscriminate killing, torture, drone strikes, soldier misconduct, and general officer maleficence that are unfortunately-but-undeniably now part of the American way-of-war? I didn’t know the authors on these panels, but was surprised at many turns about the relevance of their comments to war writing, and I’ll be seeding upcoming posts with their ideas.

A blog post about AWP15 war lit panels by Christopher Meeks is here.

A blog post about AWP15 by Andria Williams of the Military Spouse Book Review is here.

A blog post about AWP15, racism, and violence by Vanessa Martir is here.

Thank you to my fellow panelists Ron Capps, Kayla Williams, and Colin Halloran.  I’m humbled by your eloquence and bravery and honored by your friendship.

***

Introductory Remarks, “Who Can’t Handle the Truth: Memoirs by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans”

The American Civil War, in my understanding of things, was the first war to generate a subsequent “battle of the memoirs” in which Union and Confederate generals entertained readers with first-hand accounts of battlefield exploits and decisions, while also serving as correctives to other accounts, all the while cajoling for their places in history.

After subsequent wars, such as World War I, World War II, and Vietnam, memoirs written by generals and statesmen were also common, but they were joined and even supplanted in public interest by accounts written by veterans far farther down the chain-of-command than the vaunted army commanders of the North and South. We value the private soldier’s memoir, we seem to feel, because we think his, and now hers, recollections speak most truthfully to what it means to serve in combat and within a military culture that seems so increasingly foreign to civilian and peacetime life.

We honor these personal testimonies because we see in them an honesty and authenticity about war that we are not likely to get from journalism and history. We enjoy these sagas because we respect the impulse to document war and suspect that memoir writers use the power of memory and language not just to tell us about places and events that are thrilling and exotic, but to remind us that war is a brutal experience—one that requires careful retrospective handling by its participants to assess the exact nature of its horror and aid the memoir writer’s transition to effective, contributing member of the society that sent him or her off to war.

Perhaps the most striking memoir of the kind I have in mind was J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle. First published in 1959, 14 years after Gray returned from four years of combat in Europe to become a professor of philosophy, The Warriors contains many insightful formulations about what a memoir written by a veteran might be and do. Glenn writes from his position as a university teacher in 1959: “Now it is almost as though [the war] never took place.” But he immediately reverses that sentiment, in the next line stating, “Yet something is wrong, dreadfully wrong.” Tempted by the impulse to forget, he fights back, for he knows that forgetting is not just a cop-out, but ultimately impossible. “What protrudes and does not fit in our pasts rises to haunt us and makes us spiritually unwell in the present,” he writes, and commits himself to the act of remembering. Noting that “war compresses the greatest opposites into the smallest space and the shortest time,” he feels a personal and social obligation to not to “continue to forget.” Gray writes, “The deepest fear of my war years, one still with me, is that these happenings had no real purpose.” If the effort to remember through writing did not have “some positive significance for my future life,” Gray concludes, “it could not possibly be worth the pain it cost” [to either live through the experience or write about it afterwards].

Today, we have a chance to take stock of the Iraq and Afghanistan war memoir by listening to three notable authors of the genre. Each of our readers has explored not just what it means to go to war, and be in war, but to return from war and live healthily and happily afterwards. The journey for each has not been easy, and I salute them for the toughness they displayed in confronting challenging episodes in their lives and then the candor, insight, and sense of perspective revealed in their writing. I know from my own experience writing about war and its aftermath that such tasks are not easy—it means being honest with oneself and taking risk in revealing the full dimensions of one’s struggles with reading audiences. I’m honored to be the host and moderator for this panel and eager to hear what they intend to share with us.

Our first reader is Ron Capps, a retired Army and State Department veteran who currently is director of the Veterans Writing Project, a Washington, DC-based organization with national reach that promotes veteran writing through workshops and its publication 0-Dark-Thirty.  The wars of the 21st century were fought by members of the millennial generation, a group of young men and women notorious for their disrespect or obliviousness to age and precedence. But Ron Capps has been at the military and war fighting business for a long time, and his memoir Seriously Not All Right (2014) documents not just his experience as an officer-in-uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan, but a longer pre-history as a State Department official on-the-ground for extensive periods in Kosovo and Africa. It is this larger, broader, longer view that I think distinguishes Capp’s perspective.

Our second panelist, Kayla Williams, has written two memoirs about her service in Iraq and afterwards. Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army (2006) came very early in the game and immediately staked out a position as an insightful, almost definitive articulation of what it means to be a woman in uniform, in the 21st century, during not just war but a period of intense reformulation of our ideas not just about women-in-uniform but gender and sexuality in our society at large. To my mind, no one more than Kayla has spoken as frankly about these issues as they pertain to the military that took men and women for the first time in significant numbers together overseas to fight and when not fighting co-exist together. Kayla has also published a second memoir, Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War (2014) that is equally candid and insightful about the rocky road of marriage she and her husband Brian, who was seriously injured in war, have traveled together since first meeting on a remote hilltop in Iraq.

While Ron Capps represents age on our panel and Kayla Williams signifies what is strikingly new about contemporary war and war authorship, our third panelist, Colin D. Halloran, embodies a much more traditional authorial position—that of a young, literary, middle-class male—Colin was 19 when he deployed to Afghanistan as any infantryman—with no particular inclination or aptitude for soldiering before he joined “to see war” and “serve his country.” Colin turned to poetry to portray vividly the physical experience and even more intensely the emotional experience of combat, service, and life afterwards. His Shortly Thereafter (2012), a memoir that combines verse and prose, is not just one of the very few instances of poetry written by an Afghanistan veteran, but is one of the few biographies of war written by a young enlisted soldier—a doubly-curious phenomenon given the library shelves full of memoirs written by former officers and Navy SEALS. A few years older now, Colin teaches writing at Fairfield University in Connecticut. But Colin, as I know him, will be the last to ever forget where he came from and is currently at work at both another volume of poetry and a memoir that addresses his war years using the arguably more direct medium of prose.

***

Thanks to Roy Scranton for turning me on to J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors.

Yea for Minnesota, so below’s a special video insertion, the Hold Steady’s ode to the Minneapolis punk-rock scene, “Stay Positive”:

The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars in Fiction, Poetry, Memoir, Film, and Photography: A Compendium

January 5, 2015
Intermediate Staging Base Headquarters, Alexandria/Fort Polk, LA. Photo by Bill Putnam, used by permission.

Intermediate Staging Base Headquarters, Alexandria/Fort Polk, LA. Photo by Bill Putnam, used by permission.

Below I’ve catalogued memoirs, imaginative literature, and big-budget films published or released through the end of 2014 that represent important and interesting takes on America’s twenty-first century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The lists are subjective and idiosyncratic, not complete or authoritative. Still, they might help all interested in the subject to more clearly and widely view the fields of contemporary war literature and film. I’ve arranged the lists chronologically and within each year alphabetically by author or director. If I’ve misspelled a name or title, gotten a date wrong, or omitted a work you think important, please let me know and we’ll make the list better.

If the author or director has served in the US military, or is the spouse of a veteran, I have annotated the branch of service in parentheses.

The lists of “Important Precursor” texts and films represent works that I think are well known and influential among today’s war artists.  A list of stage, dance, and performance war art is forthcoming.

Important Precursor Texts:

Michael Herr: Dispatches (1978)
Tim O’Brien (Army): The Things They Carried (1990)
Yusef Komunyakaa (Army): Neon Vernacular (1993)
Anthony Swofford (USMC): Jarhead (2003)

Important Precursor Films:

Oliver Stone (Army), director: Platoon (1986)
Stanley Kubrick, director: Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Ridley Scott, director: Blackhawk Down (2001)

Contemporary Fiction:

Siobhan Fallon (Army spouse): You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011)
Helen Benedict: Sand Queen (2011)
David Abrams (Army): Fobbit (2012)
Ben Fountain: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)
Kevin Powers (Army): The Yellow Birds (2012)
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya: The Watch (2012)
Nadeem Aslam: The Blind Man’s Garden (2013)
Lea Carpenter: Eleven Days (2013)
Masha Hamilton: What Changes Everything (2013)
Hilary Plum: They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013)
Roxana Robinson: Sparta (2013)
J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith): The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013)
Katey Shultz: Flashes of War (2013)
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton (Army) and Matt Gallagher (Army) (2013)
Greg Baxter: The Apartment (2014)
Hassan Blasim, The Corpse Exhibition (2014)
Aaron Gwyn: Wynne’s War (2014)
Kara Hoffman: Be Safe, I Love You (2014)
Atticus Lish (USMC): Preparation for the Next Life (2014)
Phil Klay (USMC): Redeployment (2014)
Michael Pitre (USMC): Fives and Twenty-Fives (2014)

Contemporary Poetry:

Juliana Spahr: This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005)
Brian Turner (Army): Here, Bullet (2005)
Walt Piatt (Army), Paktika (2006)
Jehanne Dubrow (Navy spouse): Stateside (2010)
Elyse Fenton (Army spouse): Clamor (2010)
Brian Turner (Army): Phantom Noise (2010)
Paul Wasserman (USAF): Say Again All (2012)
Colin Halloran (Army): Shortly Thereafter (2012)
Amalie Flynn (Navy spouse): Wife and War (2013)
Kevin Powers (Army): Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting (2014)

Contemporary Memoir, Blog-writing, and Reportage:

Colby Buzzell (Army): My War: Killing Time in Iraq (2005)
Kayla Williams (Army): Love My Rifle More Than I Love You: Young & Female in the U.S. Army (2006)
Nathaniel Fink (USMC): One Bullet Away (2006)
Marcus Luttrell (Navy) and Patrick Robinson: Lone Survivor (2007)
Peter Monsoor (Army): A Brigade Commander’s War in Iraq (2008)
Craig Mullaney (Army): The Unforgiving Minute (2009)
Matt Gallagher (Army): Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (2010)
Benjamin Tupper (Army): Greetings from Afghanistan: Send More Ammo (2011)
James Wilhite (Army): We Answered the Call: Building the Crown Jewel of Afghanistan (2010)
Benjamin Busch (USMC): Dust to Dust (2012)
Brian Castner (Air Force): The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows (2012)
Sean Parnell (Army): Outlaw Platoon (2012)
Ron Capps (Army): Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years (2013)
Stanley McChrystal (Army): My Share of the Task (2013)
Adrian Bonenburger (Army): Afghan Post: One Soldier’s Correspondence from America’s Forgotten War (2014)
Jennifer Percy: Demon Camp (2014)
Brian Turner (Army): My Life as a Foreign Country (2014)

Photography:

Sebastian Junger: War (2010) and Tim Hetherington and Infidel (2010)
Benjamin Busch (USMC): The Art in War (2010)
Michael Kamber: Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq (2013)

Film:

Kathryn Bigelow, director: The Hurt Locker (2008)
Sebastian Junger, director: Restrepo (2009)
Oren Moverman, director: The Messenger (2009)
Kathryn Bigelow, director: Zero-Dark-Thirty (2012)
Peter Berg, director: Lone Survivor (2013)
Sebastian Junger, director: Korengal (2014)
Claudia Myers, director: Fort Bliss (2014)

Criticism:

Elizabeth Samet: Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point (2007)
Stacey Peebles: Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq (2011)
Elizabeth Samet: No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America (2014)

A caveat up-front is that my lists do not reflect hundreds of stories, poems, and photographs published individually in anthologies, magazines, and on the web. Some of my favorite stories, by authors such as Mariette Kalinowski, Maurice Decaul, Will Mackin, and Brian Van Reet, and photographs, such as the one by Bill Putnam published here, thus do not appear above, though I hope to post more comprehensive lists in the future.

Another deficiency is the lack of works by international authors and filmmakers, particularly Iraqi and Afghan artists. Again, that project awaits completion.

My list of memoirs is probably the most subjective. The works I’ve listed are those I think important historically or interesting to me personally, with a small nod toward providing a variety of perspectives. The small number of photography texts I’ve listed combine evocative pictures taken at war and on the homefront with insightful commentary written by the photographers and collaborators themselves.

War Memoir/Poetry: Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War

September 28, 2014

I’m curious why there haven’t been more post-9/11 war novels written from the perspective of a wife and that portray marriage and family life in the period after redeployment. Have we seen any? Siobhan Fallon’s collection of short stories You Know When the Men are Gone, when it appeared in 2011, seemed to announce that marital tension wrought by war would be THE subject most attractive to talented war writers and alert readers. And yet, since then, not so much of anything, really. A story here and there. Some poetry. But no long fiction, from Fallon or anyone else.

Maybe the options for portraying martial domestic life are limited. A chirpy story of foibles on the family homefront while Daddy’s off killing Taliban and Al Qaeda bad guys followed by a happy family trip to Disneyland seems neither serious nor dramatic enough, you know what I mean? A failure of imagination might also be involved. Perhaps, though, it just takes guts to depict the guts of marital strain. The blogosphere is full of writing by savvy wives of deployed service members. Writers such as Andria Williams and Angie Ricketts I’m sure don’t miss much, and their posts give the impression that they could say a lot more even than they do about military married life. But as wives of officers, they, perhaps, are bound by the same chin-up, perpetually optimistic codes of propriety that bind their husbands, and that might be what keeps them from telling all the stories, even in fictional form, that they might. I know it’s true for me, still an active-duty officer, as I think about writing short stories and novels. A little too much interest in keeping up appearances, which sometimes earns officers the accusation that they “are not real people,” is even more toxic for a would-be writer of fiction. You’ve got to put it out there, and you can’t be afraid when it gets a little messy.

Wife and WarAn interesting twist on this line-of-inquiry is afforded by Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War. Subtitled “the memoir,” it more accurately is a memoir-in-verse, as Flynn has spaced out her sentences and paragraphs a few to a page in a way that resembles long-line poetry and mixed these passages with more conventional snippets of lyric verse. Most of the lyric passages refer to the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11, which Flynn witnessed. An example reads:

But what I didn’t know then is what marriage is like, how it is a net,
like the tulle of my wedding dress. How it is.

The wire mesh, found inside a wall,

Found out on a street, after a building falls down.

How it entangles you, and how hard it is to walk away.

Flynn has lived through a lot more than just the horrifying experience of being present at Ground Zero. An equally traumatizing event from childhood, a miscarriage (or two?), and a rocky patch in her relationship with her Navy officer husband following his deployment all make their way into Wife and War’s 400+ pages. My interest here though is not Flynn’s life but her choice of poetry to tell her story. Long narrative poems haven’t been in literary fashion since the first half of the nineteenth century, but I can understand their appeal to contemporary writers looking for a means of expression more starkly stated than diffusely explained while still being more suggestive than explicit. The modus of Wife and War is to render a striking scene, event, or image minimalistically and then hint at rather than explore and analyze the cluster of emotions, perspectives, and implications that might accrue to it. For example, on one page:

I am still awake, in this new house, our bed, and my husband’s arm,
crossing over my chest, like a deadbolt.

[Next page]

And I think about the mechanism of a lock. The safety on the M4 my
husband carried for one year in Afghanistan,locked but ready.Or the way
we sleep, too often, now, now that he is home, how we sleep, together, in
our bed, but locked on opposite sides. Or our hearts, that organ we assign
too much to, or maybe, not enough, locked inside of our rib cages.

[Next page]

That’s good, plenty good enough as is for most. But there’s also a lot of white space left on the page that might be used to fill in details, provide context, sketch in character (and more characters), explain a little more, if not better, in either fact or fiction. Kudos to Flynn for thinking how the resources of literature might be brought to bear on one’s personal narrative, kudos to her for letting us see the shape that marriage to a service member might take. Wife and War’s amalgam of memoir and verse probably won’t inaugurate a new public affection for narrative poetry, but it does bravely beckon other war writers to give the spaces inside a military marriage–its guts–the attention they deserve.

Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War: The Memoir. 2013.


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